Stress is the chemical, physical and psychological factor that causes mental or bodily tension. In layman’s language stress is frustration or anxiety or nervousness or change in regular function of mind or body due to negative or positive influences around us.
Dr Arien van der Merwe, an expert on the subject, explained that when stress kicks into action, the brain reacts quickly, and neurochemicals and hormones rush through the entire body, preparing every organ and system for stress response. All your senses are involved as well as your heart, lungs, and other organs for whatever might be needed to handle the stressful situation. This instant reaction helps us to instantly jump out of the way of an oncoming out-of-control car.
There are two key elements. The first one is an alarm response. It is how we physiologically react, fast breathing and blood rushing in us. The second one is adaptation when the stressor is considered as no threat. If the two are defective or fail to switch from one to another, then stress kicks in.
Mild Stress (Eu-Stress)
It is tolerated by the body and has a positive effect on us. It causes passion for work and can provoke hidden talents and abilities. It can lead one to venture into new activities. It can lead one to be successful in what they are doing. This can be an IT programmer working on a new piece of software or an accountant coming up with a new set of formulas to smoothen a process or cut the time it takes to do certain tasks perhaps using macros in MS Excel.
Your pulse rate and blood pressure stay high. Elevated levels of cholesterol, fats, sugars, hormones, and other chemicals are present in the body. The muscles are tense. This state may in the long run damage important body organs. This for example is when there is constant and unrelenting pressure at work. Sometimes for a finance professional and similar roles, this is because of archaic systems which do not aid or ease the pressure. Macros mentioned above can be a tool to reduce the time taken to complete tasks if systems are too manual. In a future publication I will talk about these macros and similar tools.
This can take a toll on health. Apart from the symptoms found in constant stress, the stress apparatus i.e., the brain, heart, lungs, vessels, and muscles, become chronically over- and under-activated. This is when one has reached a point of burn out resulting in a break-down.
Early signs of stress
There are two broad categories of symptoms which are either emotional and behavioural or outright physical when one is experiencing visible signs of illness.
- Emotional symptoms:
- Irritability or short temper
- Agitation, inability to relax
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Sense of loneliness and isolation
- Depression or general unhappiness
- Memory problems
- Inability to concentrate
- Poor judgment
- Negative attitude
- Anxious or racing thoughts
- Constant worrying
- Behavioural symptoms
- Eating more or less
- Isolating from others
- Procrastinating or neglecting responsibilities
- Using alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs to relax
- Nervous habits (eg, nail biting, pacing)
- Aches and pains
- Diarrhoea or constipation
- Chest pain, rapid heartbeat
- Loss of sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Bad effects of prolonged stress on an organisation:
- A stressed-out workforce will be costly to an organisation. Some of these include:
- Increase in litigation costs
- Reduced profits
- High absenteeism
- High labour turnover
- Poor timekeeping
- Poor performance and productivity
- Low morale
- Poor motivation
- Increased employee complaints
- Increased ill-health, accidents, and incidents reports
- Undermining achievements of goals
- Reduced client satisfaction
From the above, one can clearly see that stress will hit an organisation’s profitability and in extreme cases viability. This points to how detrimental failure to manage stress can be.
Sources of stress at work
The workplace is a source of demands and pressure causing stress. The factors that are associated with stress and ill-health are those to do with the content of work, those to do with social relationships, and those to do with the organisational context of the work. Those that are intrinsic to the job include job content include tedious jobs, under stimulating, meaningless tasks, lack of variety, difficult tasks, complex tasks, and unpleasant tasks. Other sources include:-
Workplace and workload: Having too much or too little to do and working under time pressure, poor or dangerous working environment (poor light or very hot temperatures or hazardous environment).
Working hours: Strict and inflexible working hours, long and unsocial working hours, and unpredictable working hours and time pressure
Input: Employees who have no say or have little input in the decisions making will usually get stressed. Lack of control over work methods, workplace, working hours, and working environment leads to stress.
Career development: This is so when there is job insecurity, under or over-promotion, lack of promotion prospects, unclear or unfair performance evaluation processes, under-skilled or over-skilled for the job, lack of training
Role clarity: Unclear roles or ambiguous roles lead to stress and responsibility for people, especially when dealing with other people’s problems.
Interpersonal relationships breed stress. An example is a conflict with fellow employees and unsupportive or harsh managers.
Poor Organisational culture: This can be stressful as well as it takes a toll on employees by diverting attention and resources from the core work.
Work-life balance: Conflicting demands of home and work also can lead to stress.
A systematic review of the key factors associated with psychological ill health and associated absenteeism (Michie and Williams 2001i, unpublished data) found the key factors to be:
long hours worked, work overload, and pressure
the effects of these on personal lives
lack of control over overwork and lack of participation in decision making
poor social support
unclear management and work role and poor management style.
The model considers the first three items in the empirical review. It was found out that when job demand and pressure are coupled with low decision making (that is, low personal control over work and limited opportunities to develop skills), then stress takes its toll.
On the other hand, high job demands and high decision latitudes gave employees the possibility of motivation to learn, active learning, and a sense of accomplishment. Of the two decision-making is more important than demand and this formed the basis of the Karasek model in 1979.
Individual stress management
Individuals differ in their vulnerability to the adverse effects of stress. This depends on the level of neuroticism, level of anxiousness, and tolerance to ambiguity. These individuals get stressed if they lack material resources like financial, security, or coping skills or they react emotionally to situations and are highly competitive.
A number of activities can help individuals to cope with stress. For example:
Limit working hours to at most twelve,
rotate work from high stress to low stress,
take frequent breaks,
eat healthy foods,
make use of counselling programs,
stay in touch with your friends and family,
participate in memorials and rituals as a way to express yourself,
get enough sleep,
involve yourself in physical activities,
relaxation techniques like arts, music etc.
Get organised through time management,
say no to unimportant requests,
take a rest when feeling ill,
avoid drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc., and
face the causes of stress. When you face the stressor the reason for stress is no more
Organisational stress management
Over and above individual stress management, organisations also have a responsibility to assist in the stress management, for the benefit of their staff and as earlier highlighted this will also improve the overall organisation’s performance. Examples include:
Reducing stress through, ergonomics, work and environmental design, organisational and management development
Worker education and training
Developing more sensitive and responsive management systems and enhanced occupational health provision
Assigning work based on one’s physical and/or mental aptitudes
Providing staff with the opportunity to participate in the design their work
Technology, to improve on the efficiency, for example macros mentioned before
Allowing freedom and minimising micro-managed
Encouraging and promoting innovation, including tolerating mistakes
Increased social contact, and cooperation with colleagues
Facilitating development and growth of individuals
Stress management is paramount as no matter how brilliant or resources a team is, they will not perform at peak if there is a lot of stress within the team. This will increase productivity and reduce staff turnover. Over and above that, the staff are arguably the most important resource and need to be taken care of, more than just financially and emotionally as well. This is especially now when the importance of mental health is taking centre stage.
- Nyahuma is a finance professional with ZETDC. He has an HND in Business Studies and an MBA. He is a fellow member of SAAA and an associate member of CGI (CIS) being the branch vice-chair of CGI Mutare.